WASHINGTON — Contradicting the main argument for a war that has cost more than 1,000 U.S. lives, the top U.S. arms inspector reported Wednesday that he had found no evidence that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991. He also concluded that Saddam Hussein’s weapons capability weakened, not grew, during a dozen years of U.N. sanctions before the U.S. invasion last year.
Contrary to prewar statements by President Bush and top administration officials, Saddam did not have chemical and biological stockpiles when the war began and his nuclear capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, said Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group.
But Duelfer supported Bush’s argument that Saddam remained a threat. Interviews with the toppled leader and other former Iraqi officials made it clear that Saddam had not lost his ambition to pursue weapons of mass destruction and hoped to revive his weapons program if U.N. sanctions were lifted, his report said.
“What is clear is that Saddam retained his notions of use of force and had experiences that demonstrated the utility of WMD,” Duelfer told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Duelfer’s findings, included in a report that runs more than 1,000 pages, come less than four weeks before an election in which Bush’s handling of Iraq has become the central issue.
The Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has seized on comments this week by the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, that the United States did not have enough troops in Iraq to prevent a breakdown in security after Saddam was toppled.
Report could boost Kerry
The report could boost Kerry’s contentions that Bush rushed to war based on faulty intelligence and that sanctions and U.N. weapons inspectors should have been given more time.
“It is a very significant commentary on the mistaken case for war presented by this administration,” Mike McCurry, a senior adviser to Kerry, told reporters in Colorado. “It is very troubling that they could have been so wrong on something as fundamental as taking America to war.”
Duelfer said his report found that aluminum tubes suspected of being used for enriching uranium for use in a nuclear bomb were likely destined for conventional rockets and that there was no evidence that Iraq sought uranium abroad after 1991. Both findings contradict claims made by Bush and other top administration officials before the war.
Duelfer said he also found no evidence of trailers’ being used to develop biological weapons, although he said he could not flatly declare that none existed.
Bush: Too big a risk
But Bush cited Saddam’s “history of using weapons of mass destruction, a long record of aggression and hatred for America” in calling the invasion the right thing to do.
“There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks,” Bush said Wednesday in a campaign speech in Wilkes Barre, Pa. “In the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, traveling in Africa, said the report showed that U.N. sanctions were “not working,” insisting that it backed the U.S.-British decision to go to war. Blair has been trying to defend his justification for joining the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the face of heavy criticism from some in his own party.
Duelfer found that Saddam, hoping to end U.N. sanctions, gradually began ending prohibited weapons programs starting in 1991. But as Iraq started receiving money through the U.N. oil-for-food program in the late 1990s, and as enforcement of the sanctions weakened, Saddam was able to take steps to rebuild his military, such as acquiring parts for missile systems and restoring domestic chemical production.
However, the erosion of sanctions stopped after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Duelfer found, preventing Saddam from pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
“He was making progress in eroding sanctions — a lot of sanctions,” Duelfer told Congress. “And had it not been for the events of 9-11-2001, things would have taken a very different course for the regime.”
Fear of Iran
Duelfer’s team found no written plans by Saddam’s regime to pursue banned weapons if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Instead, the inspectors based their findings that Saddam hoped to reconstitute his programs on interviews with Saddam after his capture, as well as talks with other top Iraqi officials.
The inspectors found that Saddam was particularly concerned about the threat posed by Iran, the country’s enemy in a 1980-88 war. Saddam said he would meet Iran’s threat by any means necessary, which Duelfer understood to mean weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam believed his use of chemical weapons against Iran prevented Iraq’s defeat in that war. He also was prepared to use such weapons in 1991 if the U.S.-led coalition had tried to topple him in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The report avoids direct comparisons with prewar claims by the Bush administration on Iraq’s weapons systems. But Duelfer largely reinforced the conclusions of his predecessor, David Kay, who said in January that “we were almost all wrong” on Saddam’s weapons programs. The White House did not endorse Kay’s findings then, noting that Duelfer’s team was continuing to search for weapons.
Bush made the case
Saddam’s government fell in early April 2003 after a lightning U.S.-led invasion in mid-March. He was captured in December. Bush administration officials asserted that Iraq had obtained weapons of mass destruction in the months before ordering the invasion.
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech Aug. 26, 2002, 6½ months before the invasion. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”
The president made similar charges, laying out what he described as Iraq’s threat in a speech on Oct. 7, 2002:
- “It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.”
- “We’ve also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas.”
- “Iraq possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles — far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other nations — in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work. “
Instead, U.S. inspectors found only limited signs of the banned weapons after the active fighting ended. Among the findings:
- A single artillery shell from Saddam’s pre-1991 stockpile was filled with two chemicals that, when mixed while the shell was in flight, would have created sarin. U.S. forces learned of it only when insurgents, apparently believing it was filled with conventional explosives, tried to detonate it as a roadside bomb in May in Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers suffered from symptoms of low-level exposure to the nerve agent.
- Another old artillery shell, also rigged as a bomb and found in May, showed signs that it once contained mustard agent.
- Two small rocket warheads, turned over to Polish troops by an informer, showed signs that they once were filled with sarin.
- Centrifuge parts were found buried in a former nuclear scientist’s garden in Baghdad. These were part of Saddam’s pre-1991 nuclear program, which was dismantled after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The scientist also had centrifuge design documents.
- A vial of live botulinum toxin, which can be used as a biological weapon, was found in another scientist’s refrigerator. The scientist said it had been there since 1993.
- Evidence emerged of advanced design work on a liquid-propellant missile with ranges of up to 620 miles. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq had been prohibited from having missiles with ranges longer than 93 miles.
The Iraq Survey Group did not deal with whether Saddam’s government had contacts with members of al-Qaida, a matter that remains subject to wide debate.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.